Sunday, August 5, 2018

Saladosity, Part 12: Always Be Prepared

[This is the twelfth post in a long series.  You may wish to start at the beginning.  Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

To be prepared is half the victory.

    — Miguel de Cervantes

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.

    — Abraham Lincoln

Today we’re going to talk about veggie prep.  Part of my secret to saladosity (if there even is one) is this: always have a bunch of chopped veggies in the fridge.  I’m telling you from experience: if I keep chopped veggies in the fridge, I will eat salads just about every day, and never get bored doing it.  If I don’t keep chopped veggies, I will wish I could eat salad for a little while and then give up and eat something terribly unhealthy.  Look, it may be a bit of a cliché to point out in this day and age, but today’s modern life puts a shitload of demands on your time.  Whether it’s realistic or not—hell, whether it’s even real or not—we all at least feel like we never have time to do things.  If you have to chop veggies every time you want to eat a salad, you will hardly ever eat salad, simply because you don’t want to take the time.  If you set aside an hour or two once a week, you can chop enough veggies for the entire week and eat healthy every day.  If you don’t believe me, just try the experiment.  This coming weekend, chop a big bowl of veggies as I suggest below then record how often you eat salad the next week.  The following weekend, don’t.  Then see how often you eat salad.  Compare numbers, then return here.

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

So we’re going to chop a big batch of veggies and we’re going to stick it in the fridge and keep it for a week.  With proper preparation, you can manage to keep almost anything for a week after it’s been chopped (and we’ll cover the major exception below).  You may be able to push it for a few days beyond that, but I wouldn’t count on it.  So the big trick is to work out how much salad you can eat in a week.  Once you get that down, the rest is pretty trivial.

So here’s my pro tips:

Prepping for the Prep

From our last post, you’ll need your chef’s knife (or Santoku knife, if you prefer that style), your vegetable peeler, your cutting board, and your salad spinner.  Also, although I didn’t specifically cover it in my equipment post, take a tip from Rachel Ray1 and get a large bowl to hold your ends and seeds and peelings and all that.  It’s much easier to dump it all at the end.

Most of your veggies need a quick wash.  Unless you’re doing something crazy like leeks, you probably won’t need to soak.  But certain things—especially celery—need to be disassembled during the washing process to make sure you’re getting all the dirt from between the stalks or leaves.  Rub your thumb along any particularly dirty spots; that’s normally sufficient.

Scallions and onions (and other allium relatives) need special attention.  For onions, remove the outermost layer—not just the papery part!  The outer layer is usually not that great, and onions are cheap.  Scallions are similar but I dont always remove the outermost layer: just check that layer, and especially the long leafy part of it, to see if it’s wilted or bedraggled or starting to get a bit slimy.  If so, remove it.  In both cases, make sure you get the transparent membrane between the outer layer and the next layer.  Rub it hard and it should come right off.  If you know how to get the “skin” off a hard-boiled egg, this is the same principle.

Bagged Greens

You don’t have to buy greens in bags, of course.  Feel free to buy whole heads of lettuce or what-have-you and chop it or shred it by hand.  But that’s a pain.  The nice thing about buying greens in bags is that most of the work is done for you: the greens are washed, separated and/or chopped, and all the really bad leaves have already been tossed.  Plus you can typically get a lot more options when it comes to bagged, and often even blends of different greens, which can save you the hassle of buying a bunch of different ones and combining them yourself.

Which is not to say that using bagged greens is no work, of course.  You still need to pick out the really good leaves from the not-quite-as-good leaves.  You’re not looking for leaves that are so bad you wouldn’t eat them—you’re not going to find many (if any) of those.2  You’re looking for leaves that will be bad in a few days.  You know the expression “one bad apple spoils the bunch”?  Same principle, only with lettuce leaves it’s much more likely and will happen much more quickly.  Be ruthless: discolored spots? wilted consistency? brown around the edges? looked at you funny when you picked it up?  Toss ’em all.

There’s various things you can do with the rejects.  If you compost, that’s a fantastic destination for the not bad leaves.  If you’re particularly budget conscious, you can always just make a salad out of them right on the spot: remember, they’re not bad yet.  Personally, I feed them to our guinea pig.  Certain lizards, fish, or turtles/tortoises are other good choices.  Hey, your fuzzy and scaly children deserve good organic food too, right?

Do not underestimate this step.  You’ll end up with a nicer (crunchier and tastier) salad that will last significantly longer.  On the other hand, don’t stress over it either.  When you see a piece that has a bit of a spot on one side, either let it pass or just rip it in half and let the pieces go to the appropriate receptacle.  When you get to the bottom and it’s all little dinky bits, just toss those in with the guinea pig fodder: lettuce is cheap and your time is worth more than a few stray leaves.  I do this with my salad spinner on one side and my garbage bowl on the other, sorting two-handed.  With a little practice, you can do this surprisingly quickly.  But I won’t lie to you: the first couple of times, it’ll seem like a giant pain in the ass.  Perservere.  Trust me, your patience will be rewarded.3

Chopping Veggies

Now, in general, you’re better off searching YouTube, because a video can teach you chopping hints with a shorter time investment and a clearer visualization than any large quantity of words I could spew out.  But I’ll hand out a few tips:

Onions.  I like to cut the non-stem end off, then cut them in half.  This is the only time I cut the stem end, which minimizes the amount of crying.4  Then each half gets a radial cut, then cross cut to make a lovely dice.  One half I chop fine, which means I try to line my radial cuts with every “stripe” on the onion, and the other half I do a rougher chop, which basically just means I go with every other stripe.

Peppers.  Cut the cap off, then reach in and just yank out the guts by hand.  Tap the sides to get the remaining seeds.  Chop it in half, slice the little puckered end off each side, then flatten it as best you can and, holding your knife parallel to the pepper, slice the ribs off.  Do them one at a time at first; eventually you’ll be able to do 2 at once.

Cucumbers.  Peel them first, then chop the ends off.  Cut them the long way, once for thinner cucumbers (like most Persians), or twice for fatter models (like most Americans).  Then just chop along the length.

Celery.  You can buy pre-cut stalks, but I find those go bad more quickly.  So just buy whole hearts and cut them yourself.  At the cut end, just slice an additional sliver off to remove that unsightly part that’s starting to brown.  At the stem end, cut off the really really white part (which is also pretty tough), and maybe anything that was so dirty or streaked that it wouldn’t come clean.  Slice each rib in half the long way, then chop down the line.

Scallions.  Chop off the very tip of the bulb, where it’s “hairy.”  Now just bunch them all together and chop down the length until you get into the fully green parts.  Now begin to stop every 4 or 5 chops and look at the leaves; any that are looking sad or too woody or too flat or anything unappetizing, pull them out and toss them in the garbage bowl.  Then chop 4 or 5 more times and keep repeating that process until you don’t have any leaves left.

Other Stuff.  You’re own your own for other veggies, because that’s all the veggies I personally chop.  Fruits I always chop for the particular salad at the time I make it.

Refigerator Storage

Believe it or not, the best way to store the majority of your veggies is right in the salad spinner.  I dump them directly in there from the cutting board tray.  Spin it a few times, then stick in the back of the fridge with the lid on.  Every time you take it to make salad with, leave the lid off it for a while to let some of that moisture evaporate, then spin it a few more times and back in the fridge.  The only other consideration I’m going to give you is this: if it so happens that you go for a day or two without making a salad (and I think you’re going to be surprised how rarely that happens), take the salad spinner out anyway and let it breathe and spin it.  The trick with keeping veggies fresh in the fridge is that you have them keep them moist, or else they dry out and get gross, but you can’t let them get too moist, or else they get slimy and then they’re gross.  So keeping that moisture at the perfect level is key.

However, there are exceptions to keeping all your veggies together.  Let’s talk about the most important ones.

Onions.  I don’t actually use yellow onions in any of my main salads, but I use them all the time in cooking, and I like having them around.  And, if today is veggie chopping day anyway, why not do ’em all?  So I store the onions in separate containers.  I also like to store a few of the pepper and celery bits separately, and then I can have trinity ready at all times.5

Cucumbers.  People give iceberg lettuce shit for being mostly water, but honestly that will last in the fridge just fine (although certainly butter lettuce is better).  Cucumbers, however, are really all water, so they get mushy fast, and you don’t want them to take the rest of your salad down with them.  I like to cut about half as many cucumbers as I think I’m going to need (which, if you’re doing the big, fat Americans, is probably just one), and then store the pieces in a container lined with a paper towel—that helps keep the moisture level about as perfect as you’re going to get.  You may have to cut up another cucumber in the middle of the week, but it’s better than gross, mushy cucumbers, right?

Romaine.  I like romaine lettuce, but I had to give up on it, because it goes bad if you just look at it funny.  Seriously, romaine will pretty much instantly decompose and take down everything around it, which can be super-tragic.  I swore off the stuff long ago.  But, if you insist on using romaine anyway, just don’t cut it until immediately before you’re going to eat it.  I know that’s a bigger pain—and that’s exactly why I don’t eat it any more—but there just isn’t any other decent option.

Believe it or not, after 12 installments, we’re finally done getting ready.  Next time, I’m going to show you the simplest of our primary six salads.


1 And many other chefs who know what they’re talking about, I’m sure, but I learned it from Rachel.

2 And, if you do, please consider using a different grocery store next time.

3 As Alton Brown is wont to say.

4 It is of course possible not to cut the stem at all, but I find that method more unweildy, and plus I like cutting the two halves differently, as we’ll see.

5 Trinity, by the way, is not only excellent for all forms of Cajun cuisine, but is amazing for omelettes or scrambles, Italian dishes like Italian sausage in marinara sauce, or even on pizzas.  Yes, I put celery on my pizza.  Deal with it.

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